Category Archives: Exodus

Deserving of Miracles (Beshalach)

Deserving of Miracles (Beshalach)

Where there is great love there are always miracles. -Willa Cather

There is a well-known Midrash that has the angels standing by God’s side as He famously splits the Sea for the Children of Israel while at the same time He drowns the pursuing Egyptian army:

“God,” the angels asked, “how can you spare the Hebrews and kill the Egyptians? These are idol worshipers and these are idol worshipers!”

As we know, idol worship is among the most severe sins in the Torah, punishable by death, so the angels’ question is entirely reasonable.

The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 14:29 states that idolatry is indeed quite severe, especially as compared to such sins as infighting, gossip, slander or even theft, none of which carry the death penalty. Nonetheless, he indicates that the divine judgment is reversed when it comes to “group” sin, based on the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Peah 4b).

It is true that if an individual commits idolatry, he is deserving of the death penalty, while if he commits one of the “lesser” sins, his punishment (if any) is less severe. However, according to the Meshech Chochma and the Jerusalem Talmud, the tables are turned when we are talking about the entire people of Israel. He brings two examples: In the times of King David, the population was relatively pious, faithfully worshipping God and correctly averting idolatry. However, because the people were talebearers, God would strike the Jewish people down in their wars.

On the other hand, In the times of King Ahav, who leads one of the most idolatrous generations ever, there were no talebearers, and as a result, they emerged victorious and unscathed from their battles. The lesson being, that a community that is kind to each other, that does not bear tales about each other, even if they are idolaters like the generation of Ahav, not only are they not punished, but they merit salvation and victory in their wars. But even a generation of righteous people like those in the time of King David, if they don’t look out for each other, God’s wrath is not far behind.

Therein lies the answer to the angels’ question about the Jewish people at the splitting of the Sea. Even though they were idol worshippers, they behaved well towards one another and that merited not only salvation but outright miracles.

May we ever be deserving of miracles.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the complete and rapid recovery of all those stricken by the coronavirus epidemic.

Breaking Bad Habits (Bo)

Breaking Bad Habits (Bo)

Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you what you are. -John Ruskin

On the eve of the exodus of the Jewish people from the bondage of Egypt, on the night that would forever be known as the beginning of Pesach (Passover), the proto-nation of Israel is commanded by God to take a lamb (what would become the Pascual Lamb), slaughter it, serve it to their families and uniquely enough, smear the blood on their doorposts as a sign. God, recognizing the sign (or more likely the act of identification with the Jewish people and God’s command) would not kill the firstborns in those homes but would go on to kill the Egyptian firstborns in the tenth and final plague that He brought upon Egypt.

The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 12:21 connects this account of sacrifice and obedience to God to a much deeper significance as to how to tackle and control both our physical desires as well as our erroneous notions.

He goes on to quote an unusual line from the Talmud that reads as follows:

Rav said: The cry that one says to lead an ox is “hen hen.” The cry to lead a lion is “zeh zeh.” The cry to lead a camel is “da da.” The cry to laborers using ropes to pull a ship along a river is “heleni, hayya, hela, vehilook, hulya.” -Tractate Pesachim 112b

The Meshech Chochma explains that when one wants to lead an animal, or in our case wants to break an animalistic desire, what is needed is one line, one dictum to be repeated over and over. He suggests for example repeatedly saying the dictum from Chapter of our Fathers (Pirkei Avot 4:21): “Envy, lust and the desire for honor take a man out of the world.” Regular repetition is the best way to break our physical, animalistic habits and desires.

However, to change ones thoughts, notions and philosophies requires a more subtle approach. It cannot be altered by brute force of repetition. It requires a variety of arguments (as in the variety of words used for the laborers). It needs to be tackled by different angles until the combination of inputs succeeds in turning a person away from failed or mistaken ideas and paths and back to the ways of reason, of wisdom and good sense.

May we find both the direct strategies to break our negative desires and the more nuanced arguments to keep us on a straight intellectual path.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the important Holocaust memorials.

The Select Few (Vaera)

The Select Few (Vaera)

 Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory. -William Barclay

In this week’s Torah reading of Vaera, God promises that he will take the Jewish people out of the slavery of Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land of Canaan. The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 6:7 points out that while 600,000 men and their families were released from the enslavement of Egypt, only two men out of the original 600,000 actually made it to the Promised Land forty years later. All of the others died in the desert during the years of wandering, caused by the Sin of the Spies. Only Joshua and Caleb were spared from the punishment and merited leading the nation of Israel into Canaan and to the successful conquest of the land, together with the children and grandchildren of the Jewish slaves who had been freed from Egypt.

On the surface, it might seem unfair or even disingenuous that God promises the people they will be brought to the Promised Land when in the end He only fulfills that promise to two individuals while the rest of the nation dies off in the desert. However, the Meshech Chochma points out that it is indeed correct and even worthwhile if only two out of 600,000 achieve their divine purpose. That all the miracles which God performed in Egypt, the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, all of it was worth it even if only two people managed to reach the final goal.

He states that the vast majority of people do not and will not fulfill their divine missions. Only a select few will endure. Only a handful of the myriads of people will persevere, will excel, will remain steadfast in their belief in God and His divine providence.

Nonetheless, it is worthwhile. The Meshech Chochma adds that those select individuals who are worthy of completing their divine missions have a positive effect on all those around them. When one person from a family completes his or her mission it provides merit to the entire family. And that somehow the two, Joshua and Caleb, who fulfilled their missions were a source of merit for the other 600,000. The select few who fulfill their divine missions serve as a beacon of justice and righteousness for the nation. They light up the world, with a burning divine fire, a Godly flame.

May we find those divine-mission-completers, draw from their light and nurture it within ourselves and our families.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the first flurries of snow on the Judean Hills.

Reasonable Danger (Shmot)

Reasonable Danger (Shmot)

The most dangerous thing in the world is to try to leap a chasm in two jumps. -David Lloyd George

The Torah is filled with stories of valiant personalities, who took risks, who conquered insurmountable odds, who had faith, who persevered, and with God’s help, succeeded in their journey, in their mission, in their calling.

At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, God reveals Himself to Moses at the famous scene of the burning bush. While initially resistant, Moses eventually accepts the task of liberating the people of Israel from the bondage of Egypt. After the encounter, Moses asks permission from his father-in-law, Jethro, to go to Egypt. Jethro gives him permission with the elegant blessing: “Go in peace.”

However, immediately after Jethro’s blessing, in Exodus 4:19, God again speaks to Moses and says: “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who sought to kill you are dead.”

The Meshech Chochma draws a perhaps counter-intuitive lesson from God’s command. He understands from the verse, that if the men who sought to kill Moses were still alive, Moses would have no obligation to risk his life by going to Egypt to free the Jewish people, even though the entire nation depended on him.

He learns a similar lesson, though one that might not have been apparent from a simple reading of the Talmud. The Talmud states that an inadvertent killer is exiled to a city of refuge and is prohibited from leaving the city for as long as the High Priest, the Kohen Gadol, is still alive. It then gives an example, that even if one of the greatest generals of our history, Yoav son of Tzeruya was sentenced to exile to a city of refuge and all of Israel needed him, he would not be permitted to leave. At first glance, we would reasonably assume that he can’t leave because that is part of his sentence and no pardon is available, even for extenuating circumstances. But the Meshech Chochma understands that the deeper meaning would be because by leaving the city of refuge, he would be putting himself into a high level of danger, as the “blood redeemer,” the relative of the inadvertent killer’s victim, has the right to kill him outside the city.

So too, Moses, when confronted with a very real and present danger to his life, was absolved from having to save Israel. The Meshech Chochma learns that one is not obligated to put themselves in likely mortal danger in order to save others. However, when the risks are not so clear cut and the danger is not so imminent, it’s a different story.

May we avoid dangers, both imminent and distant, and may we be safe and secure wherever we are.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

To my son Elchanan, and his friends, who have completed their army service. Thank you for your service!

God is shadowing us (Pekudei)

God is shadowing us (Pekudei)

Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences. -Robert Louis Stevenson

The main architect, the main builder of the Tabernacle was a young man by the name of Betzalel. The name Betzalel literally means “in the shadow of God.” The Midrash tells the tale of Betzalel’s extreme insightfulness as to the meaning behind God’s instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle. He was so insightful that Moses asks of him in wonder “were you in the shadow of God, that you know all of this?”

The Berdichever flips the wordplay around and explains that it is God that is in our shadow. Just as whatever act we do, our shadow mimics, so too with God. Any act that we do, God will mimic upon us. If we are kind to others, God will be kind to us. If we are cruel or indifferent to others, God will likewise be cruel or indifferent to us.

The Berdichever advises us further of the need to think well before we speak or act, for God does take note. We should never think that what we say or do has no meaning. The words we use, the actions we take are significant, they are impactful, they can heal or hurt, build or destroy. And whichever path we choose, God will make sure that we will reap the consequences of our actions.

It will be a natural reaction that we will be rewarded in kind for the good that we do, and that likewise, we will be punished measure for measure for the evil that we commit. God is shadowing us. He is watching and replicating our every word and act upon us. It may not be obvious to us, but it is as unmistakable and as undeniable as our very shadow copying our every move.

May we be cognizant of the words we use and the things that we do. May they be worthy of God’s “shadowing” and may we be the beneficiaries of only goodness and kindness.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my travel buddy, Marc L. Always great to shadow you whenever possible.

Generational Baton (Vayakhel)

Generational Baton (Vayakhel)

My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. -John Bunyan

For the construction of the Tabernacle, the Torah states that God bestowed wisdom on a variety of individuals. Suddenly, they had the knowledge, the expertise required for the woodwork, the metalwork, the tapestry-work, for the creation of the representation of God’s abode on Earth.

The Berdichever highlights that the creation of the Tabernacle parallels the creation of the world. The divinely-inspired artisans who constructed the Tabernacle found themselves with infinite understanding and capabilities, yet they circumscribed their efforts. They left something for successive generations to do.

The Berdichever explains that in every generation, the righteous of that generation create heaven and earth anew. By their delving in the Torah, by continually finding new understandings in the Torah, they are continuing the labor of the divinely-inspired artisans who constructed the Tabernacle. They are creating an abode for God on Earth. They are carrying the eternal baton that our ancestors left for us. They are continuing the race, relaying from one generation to the next the never-ending divine work.

There is something about the Torah in general, and the Tabernacle and its utensils in particular, which hides secrets of creation, secrets of the connection between heaven and earth, secrets as to the conduit between the upper worlds and the lower worlds, secrets of our very existence, purpose and future.

May we uncover some of those secrets and get a glimpse of what a heavenly earth looks like.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Anglo community of Tzfat, for a very warm welcome.

We Haven’t Even Started (Ki Tisa)

We Haven’t Even Started (Ki Tisa)

The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning. -Ivy Baker

At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, God commands Moses to take a census of the Jewish nation. Both the process for taking the census, as well as the language that is used, is unusual. There is a prohibition to count Jews directly. God commands Moses to gather a half shekel from each man above the age of twenty years old (basically, those eligible for army service). The rich can’t give more and the poor can’t give less. Based on the funds that were collected they would indirectly know the number of people who could serve.

At the heart of the verse which gives the command is the Hebrew verb “phkod,” which can be translated as “to count” or “to enroll.” A literal translation of the verse would look as follows:

“And God spoke to Moses, saying: When you raise the head of the children of Israel according to their count (li’phkudeihem), and they shall give each man an atonement for their soul to God when they are counted (bi’phkod), and there shall not be a plague upon them when they are counted (bi’phkod).” – Exodus 30:11-12

The Berdichever explains that the word “li’phkudeihem” (“to their count”), is a language which demonstrates that something is lacking. With that understanding, he explains how we should view our own service of God, namely that we should always view ourselves as if we hadn’t even started serving God. Paradoxically, when one keeps in mind that he hasn’t started, then he has reached someplace in his divine service. Conversely, if one were to think that they’ve reached a certain level in serving God, then in fact, they haven’t reached anything yet.

All of this is hinted at in the verse. When it refers to “raise the head,” it means that the way to become elevated is to feel a sense of lack, to understand that we really haven’t started to serve God properly. When someone gives “an atonement for their soul,” they start to connect to and serve God from a sense of humility, with a constant sense of purpose and dedication, with daily renewing vigor.

May we have the humility to realize where we’re at and the strength to always strive further.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Padowitz family of Ramat Bet Shemesh for hosting a great Zehut event.